Casual Companions: Mentors

By Becky Waxman

       

This is Part Two in a three-part series about companionship in casual games. Part One contains the series introduction and a discussion of companions who take on the role of sidekicks.

A mentor, unlike a sidekick, isn't a servant or an underling and he or she (usually) can't be hired. Mentors begin in a position of authority, or they choose to guide the protagonist, often without fully explaining why they've chosen to do so. They always know things that the protagonist hasn't learned yet -- past history that's important for the context of a mystery and/or a detailed "big picture" understanding of the current situation. Often mentors recognize hidden or underdeveloped abilities that the hero or heroine isn't aware of yet. Mentors present themselves as trustworthy and competent. It's up to the protagonist, through the course of the story, to decide whether the mentor has a darker, more troubled aspect to his character or his past.

Mentors can be teachers, instructing the hero how to proceed or helping him develop new skills. They may guide the heroine on her journey. Like sidekicks, mentors often are equipped to give puzzle hints. Unlike sidekicks, mentors usually don't accompany the heroine throughout the entire adventure. They come and go, disappearing and reappearing -- or they are present periodically as a voice or a spirit.

Regardless of the mentor's greater experience or knowledge, in the game's climactic moment or final confrontation, the hero transcends the mentor and solves the mystery, finds the right path, and/or singlehandedly defeats the villain.

*Note: I'm aware that many gamers partner with their children to play casual games. I've put an asterisk in front of each game that is more appropriate for teens and up, rather than young children. Further note -- all the games below feature a point-and-click interface and use a first person perspective.

Inspector Fowler -- Investigative Trainer

*Penny Dreadfuls: Sweeney Todd

In this Interactive Hidden Object Game (IHOG), you play as a detective in 19th century London, investigating the disappearance of a young sailor. You are under the supervision of Inspector Fowler of The Watch. You never see his face, but you frequently hear his gruff, cockney voice. Inspector Fowler doesn't suffer fools gladly (especially you). He prods, reminds, explains and criticizes. He is also extremely well voiced and his offhand remarks are a hoot. (I particularly enjoyed the comment about women's handbags.)

The environments include several locations in the seedier parts of London. Graphics are naturalistically rendered in careful historical detail, and enhanced by fog and rain.

Inventory challenges abound, plus standalone puzzles which often involve pattern analysis. Frequent Hidden Object (HO) Find List screens range in difficulty from dicey to very tough. Each chapter of the game opens with a list of evidence to find. You don't really understand the importance of each item of evidence until the end of the chapter when, with help from the Inspector's snide case notes, all becomes clear.

This game's villain is the shady character of Sweeney Todd, who first saw life in a penny dreadful (the 19th century equivalent of a graphic novel). As a reference to Sweeney's recent Broadway musical associations, brief portions of the story are told in operatic recitative, with visual panels illustrating events as the characters sing. The music heightens the emotional appeal, while intensifying the unfolding story. I've never seen anything quite like it in a game.

Magus vs. Mera -- Science vs. Magic

Guardians of Magic: Amanda's Awakening

Amanda, the heroine of this adventure-lite/casual adventure, is something of an anomaly -- in a magical world, she is interested in science. Amanda's grandfather arranges for a scientist friend, Dr. Magus, to tutor Amanda and to encourage her natural curiosity. The mentoring relationship ends abruptly when the two men quarrel over the conflicts between science and magic.

Graphics in Amanda's Awakening are hand drawn and colorful. The magical realm is detailed, but with a nostalgic, soft-focus aura. Sprightly music plays in the background. The non-magical world, in contrast, is stark and minimalist.

Amanda returns to her grandfather's home after his death to find a mysterious package and a crystal ball. Reflected in the crystal ball is the image of Mera Whitelaw, a magician with delicate, elf-like features. Mera speaks through the crystal ball, informing Amanda that she is imprisoned somewhere in the non-magical world. The package also contains the blueprint for a device that will allow Amanda to find and release Mera. To do this, however, Amanda must overcome her disbelief in the power of magic.

As Amanda's preternatural abilities awaken, she must solve a series of constellation connection challenges, use portals to other times and dimensions, and learn spells that involve moving the mouse in a specific pattern. The game also features inventory item challenges (it does not have Find Lists), jigsaw-like puzzles and a variety of mini-games.

Mera encourages Amanda's nascent magical abilities. She also conveys tidbits of information about magical creatures, artifacts and history. Amanda's skills strengthen and she is forced to confront her former mentor, Dr. Magus. Amanda must decide which mentor is the most trustworthy, as the conflict between magic and science plays out in the endgame, with the prospect of further adventures.

Nathan -- The Unknown Quantity

*Age of Enigma: The Secret of the Sixth Ghost

This is an unusual adventure-lite/casual adventure set in a dystopian future. It begins on Long Island, where you can see the New York City skyline in ruins. A new government has taken over and is highly suspicious of any psychic activity. For instance, any house that is suspected of being haunted is immediately destroyed.

A young woman named Ashley has been experiencing odd, frightening nightmares. She is contacted by the Fraternity of Mediums, which sends her to a house that has figured prominently in her dreams. There she encounters a dark, hooded figure, who says that his name is Nathan. He indicates that Ashley has remarkable psychic powers -- powers that only he is qualified to help her develop. The first step in her training has Ashley freeing six ghosts who are trapped in various rooms in the house.

Learning to manipulate the contents of each room, Ashley discovers how to travel to the moment in each ghost's past life when a pivotal mistake trapped him or her in the physical realm. She visits a variety of times and places, including a temple at the time of Incan human sacrifices and a Zen garden and bridal suite in ancient Japan.

The graphics are fashionably stylized. Background music and ambient sounds are unusual -- they include arresting uses of the human voice. Voiceovers during cut scenes are professional. The game contains mature themes, as well as frequent references to the occult.

Kudos to the designer of the creative mini-games in The Secret of the Sixth Ghost. They include manipulating patterns, visualizing three dimensions, matching symbols, and analyzing images. These are supplemented by inventory challenges, including the ability to combine items in inventory. Although there aren't any Find Lists in this game, you must occasionally locate items in a specific category or pick up pieces of a particular object. An intriguing feature allows you to individually adjust the difficulty level of each mini-game.

Nathan appears after each ghost is freed, encouraging Ashley and delivering information that is alluring and vaguely threatening. He is one of the mysteries in this game -- his appearance is ominous, but his intentions seem good. Ashley has no choice but to accept his guidance, as he alone knows what's really going on in the house and why her presence is required.

The Pocket Watch -- Mechanical Mentoring

Lost in Time: The Clockwork Tower

Eliza has always wondered about the goings-on in her village's mysterious clock tower. One day she decides to investigate. Her unexpected entrance throws off the finely tuned mechanism, causing the timestream to go horribly wrong, with anomalies occurring all over town. In the midst of the ruin of the tower, she discovers a pocket watch that, strangely, is sentient and speaks with a voice of authority.

The watch bears the "imprint" of a young man with old-fashioned glasses and an out-of-style haircut. The watch advises Eliza that if she recovers its missing gears, she can control different aspects of time -- granting her the ability to retrieve lost items and people. Once the watch is fully operational, it (he?) can show Eliza how to fix the time anomalies and save the village.

Eliza, understandably, is reluctant to trust a talking watch, and frequently second guesses its instructions. The watch, though eager to impress her, enjoys teasing Eliza and makes sarcastic remarks. (The game is fully and competently voiced.) This heroine/mentor duo contributes the sharpest dialog of any game listed here and is the best portrayal of a relationship in conflict. As the story progresses, it is evident that the watch knows a lot more about the town and about Eliza than he cares to reveal.

Graphics in The Clockwork Tower are naturalistic and the village environments, including the local museum, are quaint and appealing. Challenges include inventory puzzles, mini-games, and Hidden Objects with a Find List. Partway through the game an interactive map becomes available. This eliminates much back-and-forthing as Eliza revisits every area, preparing a final attempt at fixing the clock tower and time itself.

Henry Hudson -- History Sleuth

Unsolved Mystery Club: Ancient Astronauts

Henry Hudson is still alive! And he's the bureau chief for a secret organization called the Unsolved Mystery Club. Several of his top agents have gone missing in various places and times. Your job -- investigate these disappearances and determine if they are linked.

As you explore the environments in exotic locations -- including Mali, Peru, and Antarctica -- Henry Hudson provides historical information and guidance. His mentorship is less "hands-on" than that of the other mentors. He explains developments and issues orders to keep you on track, but doesn't actually engage in back-and-forth dialogs. Most of the time he trusts you to function on your own in these eerie, authentically detailed surroundings.

Striking a nice balance between exploration and puzzle-solving, this IHOG contains a handful of Find Lists in each time period. Gameplay focuses on inventory challenges (spiced up by a few item combination challenges), pattern puzzles, and mini-games. Intriguing novelties include an interactive journal and translating foreign languages.

Ancient Astronauts unfolds as a series of enticing mysteries, but the ending doesn't satisfy its early promise. In the final time period, after confronting repetitive (though skippable) sliding block puzzles, the game reveals a quick cut scene that doesn't explain much. The overall game quality up to that point is high; the anti-climactic final moments are a disappointing contrast.

The Girl -- Charming Motivator

*Phantasmat

You are driving along a lonely road at night when your car crashes, stranding you in a dark wood. A girl comes to your rescue. She is slender, with large luminous eyes and a confident air. She doesn't introduce herself, but instructs you to follow a path to the local hotel, where you will be able to use a phone to call for help. After reaching the hotel, you are dismayed to learn that, when walking back toward the road, none of the forest paths contain an exit. Sooner or later, you are forced to return to the hotel.

Two other people are at the hotel -- the owner and an elderly woman who tells your fortune. They have been there since a disastrous flood, which inundated the town below. Much of the hotel and the surrounding landscapes still show the ravages of the flood, with debris scattered everywhere. Tendrils of algae and strands of seaweed hang down from the walls and add to the stylized, creepy environments, shot through with glow-in-the-dark neon colors.

The girl takes you aside and confides that she has been trying to leave her job at the hotel and its claustrophobic wood, and thinks that the answer to getting out lies somewhere in the partially flooded town. You may be just the person to find the answer she is seeking, allowing you both to escape to the outside world. The girl's youth, innocence, and incomplete knowledge make her unusual as a mentor. Still, she is the pivotal figure who initiates and holds you to a quest for answers -- and she knows more than she is prepared to admit, even to herself.

Phantasmat is a well written and voiced IHOG that draws you into its odd drama. The game contains a series of mysteries, discovered through the process of solving inventory challenges, pattern puzzles, and mini-games. The Find Lists have a novel feature -- you can elect to forgo item searching and instead play a Match-3 game that delivers the same inventory item. As you puzzle your way deeper into the town's mysteries, you see flashbacks of events that happened before the flood, shown via camera angles that obscure as much as they reveal.

Every time you seem to hit a wall, the girl is there to encourage you, providing a tantalizing glimpse into the town's past, and redirecting you to a series of increasingly horrific discoveries. Near the end, the girl suddenly draws back. Her own internal conflicts assert themselves, and she demands that you stop. But by then you are close to the solution and, like a hound following a scent, you aren't inclined to take orders any more.

Protagonists and Companions -- Age and Gender

The protagonists in casual games are frequently young women. Of the twelve games described in the first two Casual Companions editorials, half of the protagonists are young females. I've no objection to assuming the role of a lovely young girl. However, after the sixth or seventh game in a row, following the exploits of a very young woman does start to get...well...a trifle old.

Companions, happily, show much more variety than protagonists. (Only one game in the twelve features a young woman as a companion: Phantasmat.) Though most of the sidekicks and mentors I've described are male, gender becomes less of a defining quality when the character is a magical being, an animal, a homunculus, or a pocket watch.

There are exceptions to the "youthful protagonist" trend. For instance, Sherlock Holmes in Hound of the Baskervilles is somewhere between youth and middle age, as is Rachel Broadview in Lost Secrets: Bermuda Triangle. Other casual games -- notably Murder she Wrote and Love Story: The Beach Cottage -- feature middle-aged females as the protagonist. As a casual gamer, I certainly wouldn't object to seeing more protagonists whose backgrounds include a decade or more of character-developing maturation and experience.

ARGHGHG! The Autosave

Most casual games have an autosave feature. This automatically saves your progress when you leave the game, and puts you right where you left off when you start the game again.

Autosaving is less bothersome in general when compared to traditional save game features. You don't have to figure out how to save your game and you don't need to remember to save your game before exiting. However, the autosave feature sometimes turns from a friend into a frenemy.

In Lost in Time: The Clockwork Tower, for instance, I hit a glitch where a gold gear disappeared and I couldn't place it in the pocket watch. I found a workaround for the problem -- if I removed all the other gears from their "holding area" and placed them inside the pocket watch mechanism immediately before picking up the last gold gear, none of the gears disappeared. To figure this out, though, I had to go back to the beginning and replay the game up to the gold gear sequence over and over again, trying something new each time. I liked the game so much it was worth it, but it would have been much less frustrating if I had been able to return to a saved game or checkpoint closer to the problem, rather than starting at the beginning each time.

If casual games continue to autosave, it might make sense to also include a feature that makes checkpoint saves available throughout the game. I think that any difficulty including this feature would be offset by the convenience for gamers who hit a glitch, or want to go back and replay a sequence, or re-attempt a previously skipped puzzle, or view a cutscene. It would be a lifesaver for those saintly folks who write walkthroughs, and also for those not-so-saintly folks who write reviews and editorials.

Coming up Next

Look to this space to see more discussion of casual games and companionship. Next up: Casual Companions -- Teams.

**Note: some of the ideas for this article were influenced by Character Development and Storytelling for Games, a book by Lee Sheldon.

 

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